Am I a leader or a friend?

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Professor Kerrie Unsworth is Chair in Organizational Behaviour and is Head of the Workplace Behaviour Research Centre. Her research focuses on how people juggle goals, tasks and identities and the effect this has on motivation and particular behaviours such as creativity and pro-environmental behaviour. The below article is based on the paper 'Am I a leader or a friend? How leaders deal with pre-existing friendships' written and researched by Professor Unsworth, Dr Darja Kragt, University of Western Australia, and Ms Amber Johnston-Billings, Director - Climate Change and Sustainability, KPMG Australia.

Am I a leader or a friend? | Blog | Centres and institutes | University of Leeds

Are you friends with the people you work with? What happens if one day you are no longer a teammate but instead become the boss? Transitioning from being a teammate to being the leader of the team is a big step that a lot of people have to make – and it’s something that we struggle with.

We wanted to find out more about how people deal with this step so we observed and talked to employees in two mining companies and a childcare organisation who had been promoted into a leadership role from within their workgroup. Everybody was able to recall and describe at least one issue they encountered after being promoted to a leadership role, with many reporting several incidents.

Problems leaders face with pre-existing friendships

When examining what the leaders told us, we found that the issues fell into two broader categories – vulnerability to exploitation, and using power.

Being vulnerable to exploitation

Vulnerability to exploitation encompassed four different problems that leaders face:

  • Being taken seriously as a leader – feeling like people didn’t acknowledge the leader’s new responsibilities
  • Leave requests - friends often asking to leave work early
  • Friends appealing for personal support – dealing with non-work issues like relationship problems
  • Friends expecting “better” treatment – asking for favours and taking advantage

Power based conflict

These issues tended to arise from having to use the power inherent in being in a leadership role:

  • Confidentiality – being unable to share certain information and having friends ask about it
  • Discipline – having to pull friends aside to reprimand them
  • Giving directives – having to tell your friends what to do

Dealing with pre-existing friendships

So how did the leaders deal with these problems? As well as experiencing different types of psychological conflict, leaders also resolved that conflict in different ways.

Conflict resolution

We identified five resolution strategies used by the participants:

  • Abdicating responsibility – either by appealing to authority (eg saying an order came from upper management and that they were just the messenger) or by focussing solely on the friendship and not embracing the leadership role
  • Ending the friendship – still being approachable and outgoing while at work but not being friends with those in the subordinate role
  • Establishing a divide – maintaining both the friendship and leadership role but only allowing one to emerge at a time, usually seen as leader at work and friend outside work
  • Overlapping the leadership role and friendship at work – playing the “friend card” as well as being the boss
  • Using their friendship to improve their leadership – approaching a colleague as a friend and playing on that relationship to benefit the company (eg playing on an emotional response such as saying “you’re not going to let me down are you?”)

Using resolution strategies

We sought to explore when leaders used particular strategies. Our analyses showed that the way in which a person resolved the discord depended both on the type of conflict and the person’s view of leadership (eg whether they saw themselves as “the boss”, they saw their leadership as “just a role”, or whether they didn’t seem themselves as a leader).  We found that:

  • When leaders had a fear of being exploited they either ended the friendship or abdicated responsibility
  • When leaders didn’t like using power on friends they were more likely to establish a divide or end the friendship
  • Those with a boss identity tended to resolve leader-friend psychological conflict by ending the pre-existing friendship
  • Those with a role-based identity tended to establish a divide
  • And those with a weak leader identity mainly resolved leader-friend psychological conflict by having overlapping roles, establishing the divide or abdicating responsibility.

Key findings for organisations

Although this research is just one of the first steps into understanding how leaders deal with pre-existing friendships, we can draw some learnings that will be useful for organisations to implement.

Often when employees are promoted to leadership roles there is a tendency to see them as a “leader” and not to see them as a “whole person”. But leaders and managers are not just the role they hold, they have feelings, emotions, irrational beliefs, and idiosyncrasies, just like the rest of us. Managers can’t shut off their human-side and because of that they can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable displaying power in front of their friends. Organisations can take care to promote people into different areas or to provide them with emotional and instrumental support to help them identify appropriate strategies during the early stages.

It is also reasonable to assume that the increased understanding of the types of psychological conflict a leader/friend dyad will face can be shared and taught to other leaders who are managing friends. Thus, as part of leadership training, leader/friend scenarios could be included to help individuals better understand their leadership schema and thus adopt effective psychological strategies. Awareness of oneself as a leader, and as a person, is key.


This blog post is based on an article published in The Leadership Quarterly.You can read the published paper online, including a full list of references.

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